Most people think of Disney World as a bustling, busy place–crowds and lines and hurrying. And while you can certainly approach a Disney park with that “theme park commando” mentality, always hustling to the next attraction, trying to see as much as possible, I like a quieter day at Disney, with lots of stops in peaceful places I’ve fallen in love with over my many years of visiting the parks. For the first in an occasional series on relaxing places at Disney World, let’s look at The Seas at Epcot.
Originally opened as The Living Seas in 1986, Epcot’s oceanic pavilion is a pretty impressive engineering marvel. In fact, as you exit (through the gift shop) you might notice a plaque on the wall from the American Society of Civil Engineers, awarding The Living Seas a Civil Engineering Achievement of Merit in 1987. (The following year, Tampa Bay’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge would receive the same honor). At opening, its 5.7 million gallon saltwater aquarium was the largest of its kind in the world, and today it’s still the centerpiece of this cool, dark pavilion, an oasis on a hot summer’s day and definitely one of the most relaxing places at Disney World’s theme parks.
If you’re traveling to Disney with small children, The Seas can be relaxing for you — and great fun for your kids. When I’m asked about planning for Epcot with kids, bringing them to The Seas and allowing them to just roam and enjoy the aquariums is one of my first suggestions. You can even do so without waiting in line — always a perk!
Although The Seas is meant to be explored after riding the attraction, a short dark ride based on Finding Nemo, it’s not necessary to stand in the attraction queue if you just want to visit with the fishes. You can simply bypass the attraction by entering through the merchandise shop to the left of the main entrance. Good to know if you’ve ridden the attraction before and didn’t have a good experience with the angler fish (some kids really hate that angler fish!).
Once inside, you’re free to roam between the displays, which include educational exhibits, touchscreen computers, a manatee exhibit, and, of course, the massive saltwater aquarium itself. Two levels of observation deck, including a round central platform that extends into the center of the aquarium, means you can always find plenty of room to peer into the big blue world. It also means there is plenty of space for small children to move around, chasing fish or sea turtles, without bumping into other people. It’s an air-conditioned space with lots to see and plenty of personal space — how often do you find that at Walt Disney World?
Besides the obvious Nemo pieces like Turtle Talk with Crush (an interactive show featuring a conversation with the surfer sea turtle from the movie) and the giant fiberglass Bruce the Shark photo-op, a decent number of the actual animal displays in The Seas have a Finding Nemo theme. On the second floor, you’ll find a collection of nursery aquariums full of fish friends from the film, including clownfish (or Baby Nemos, as they’re called by every single child who sees them and squeals with delight).
As for the main aquarium, its viewing areas are divided into two sections. The largest area is devoted to the massive artificial coral reef, teeming with everything from colorful fish to massive sea turtles. The smaller area is often inhabited by one or two dolphins, who also have a backstage area walled off from guests. During the day, you might catch a training session with the dolphins, narrated by a Cast Member in the observation area.
On our most recent visit, we found a dolphin sensory study in progress. The Cast Member would show the dolphin a shape on a card, and then he was supposed to go pick out the corresponding shape from a set of three cards. The Cast Member encouraged us to applaud if he picked the right shape. “He can hear you through the glass,” she promised, “and he loves the attention!”
Kids and adults alike were fascinated by this display. And again, because there’s so much room to spread out and see into the tank, you could remove yourself from the crowd around the Cast Member and find another spot off to one side where you could still watch the action. You could also see, if you knew where to look, the other dolphin watching from the backstage tank!
If anyone gets bored watching dolphins and sea turtles and sharks glide past, there are also manatees to check out. Their two-level observation windows mean that you can see the manatees glide underwater, their massive bodies positively graceful as they swim, and then above the water, where their big snorty faces blow out water as they munch romaine lettuce.
Another great thing about The Seas: Epcot’s Cast Members are actively involved in conservation and wildlife rehabilitation. In recent years, The Seas took in a manatee named Lil Joe, who has spent his entire 25 years in captivity. It sounds sad at first, but he’s best off this way. Lil Joe was an orphan, only three feet long and weighing 42 pounds, when he was rescued from the Halifax River. Without a childhood at sea, he never figured out how to live in the wild. There have been several attempts to set Joe free, the last of which saw the manatee nearly die after he tried to eat a boat cushion. [Orlando Sentinel: Manatee Adventures of Lil Joe Lead to Epcot]
For now, Lil Joe is a pleasure to watch at Epcot, and his unscarred flippers and back are in striking contrast to the other manatees that come in and out of Epcot’s rehabilitation program. Like most manatees, Epcot’s sea cows all bear the long scars and tattered flippers left behind by encounters with boat propellors. Maybe it will be compelling to children, perhaps future boaters, to see the contrast between what a manatee should look like, and what manatees do look now that they share their canals and rivers with recreational boats.
The Seas lacks only a good snack option. Although it hosts a full-service restaurant in Coral Reef Restaurant (which has a separate entrance from the rest of the pavilion), the only quick options are limited to the merchandise spot’s bags of candy and trail mix. If you work up an appetite roaming through the pavilion, visit Sunshine Seasons at neighboring pavilion The Land, for one of the best food court areas in Walt Disney World, with options for everyone and high-quality, inventive dishes.
Otherwise, when you’re looking for relaxing places at Disney, The Seas stands out as a cool, uncrowded oasis–someplace where you can let the kids off the leash for a little exploration, enjoy some time out of the sun and heat, and maybe learn a little something new while you’re there.
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